A Dazzle A Day
Definition of Dazzle
1: to arouse admiration by an impressive display.
1: to confound with brilliance.
1: a group of zebras.
Z is for Zambia
This double-zz’d word seems fitting for my entire experience in this dazzling country, since Zambia fully confounded my expectations with its brilliance, as did its people.
Nothing dazzled me more in Zambia than the generous and talented faculty of Ngoma Dolce Music Academy. They were my primary reason for travelling exactly half way around the world, thanks to an invitation from a close Vancouver friend and harpist, Heidi Krutzen, who has been supporting their school since the last eight years. In 2012, through her work with Malambo Grassroots, (http://www.malambograssroots.ca), Heidi succeeded in crowdsourcing and shipping 126 donated instruments to Ngoma Dolce, from Vancouver to Lusaka, including three pianos, dozens of violins and even a euphonium. (SEE Vancouver Sun cover story: https://www.pressreader.com). The instruments’ harrowing journey, through Italy, Oman, and Tanzania, took 7 months, 4 longer than expected. But they all continue to live in Ngoma Dolce’s beautiful thatched building, safe, sound and lovingly played by the school’s nearly 200 students. You can imagine my delight when, on my first afternoon, while observing a percussion lesson, a North Vancouver Youth band bass drum was staring me in the face!
My role, there, was to provide professional development for the school’s teachers, through facilitated dialogues, pedagogy workshops, and strategic planning sessions. I spent the first day of my 3-week residency simply listening: to the faculty’s needs, to the student’s lessons, to the director’s hopes, and to the comfortingly familiar music that sang from each of their nine teaching studios. That Bach and Mozart touches the hearts of Zambians, too, I find incredibly moving. Certainly, there could be concerns that this colonialist music has been force-fed to them, compromising their connection to their own rich culture. But that is not at all Ngoma Dolce’s history. Each of their faculty has come to their passion for classical music independently. I was reminded, again, that this centuries-old art form encompasses so many universal truths about the human spirit that it can speak to everyone. It makes me think of the name of the actual café where I happen to be writing, today. It’s called Ubuntu, which is a Bantu term (Bantu referencing the family of languages that come from sub-Saharan Africa). It is often translated as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others”, but it is also used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” (Wikipedia). The further from home I travel, the more true this sentiment comes to be for me. So, while I recognize that there do exist genuinely problematic cases of cultural misappropriation, I am more heartened than offended that Canadians want to eat in African-inspired cafés, Zambian cab drivers want to listen to Indian Bollywood music full-blast, and the Ngoma Dolce faculty want to dedicate their lives to music that is mostly composed by dead white men who wrote it to please Africa’s oppressors. Because I believe these phenomena speak to something that is sovereign from time, politics, or borders and is, therefore, universally resonant.
Barely a day went by in Zambia when I did not shed tears of wonder, and the first came in a guitar lesson taught by William, a gifted musician who can play a piece in any style, instantly, by ear. He is also a facile improvisor, a skill that always leaves me in awe. With one beginner student, he taught just four simple chords, on top of which he played the most expressive melodic version of Bernstein’s One Hand, One Heart, which made this young boy sound like a pro.
My immediate impression of Zambia was formed when I noticed the “One Zambia, One Nation” gate through which we left. It turns out this inclusive, peaceful sentiment is deeply ingrained in the Zambian psyche. With 72 tribes and distinct dialects, they pride themselves on a notably non-violent tribal history, they frequently intermarry, and they have managed, perhaps, the most peaceful move to independence from Colonial Britain in all of Africa. I was told that Zambian parents even tell their children, when they are quarreling with their siblings, that “We don’t do that. We are a peaceful people.”
Their peaceful nature is only rivaled by their generosity. And that was beautifully evident in a story shared to me by the strings teacher at Ngoma Dolce. The dapper and gentlemanly O’Brien has had the unique fortune to tour Europe as a violinist with the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra, and Africa with the Cape Town String Quartet. International travels like these have afforded him the opportunity to apprentice with a Hungarian master string repair person. And, consequently, he has brought this specialized superpower back to Zambia, where he provides repairs to community members in need, for free. He told me he considers it his service as a good Christian. On a quiet afternoon when one of his students didn’t show, we shared a particularly touching moments as we spontaneously played the opening aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with him on the left hand and me on the right. We were so pleased with ourselves we even recorded it. And since piano is a second instrument for both of us, we think the wrong notes, squeaky bench, out of tune grand, and fuzzy sound quality made it all the more charming. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qwwp-d-jn0o
Many first impressions at Ngoma Dolce dazzled me, as they did Jen, my good friend and President of the Board for Instruments of Change (instrumentsofchange.org). I was lucky enough to have her companionship for the first ten days of my journey, because she offered to sponsor her own participation in this project (which was made possible as a collaboration between I of C and Malambo Grassroots), as videographer and all-around-amazingly helpful partner. The faculty embraced her as warmly as they did me, demonstrated by the plentiful Zambian welcome lunch they treated us to, on our first afternoon. They happily accommodated my pescatarian diet, ordering ifisashi (steamed pumpkin leaves, chiles, and peanuts), nshima (polenta-like corn meal), Zambezi river bream fish, and chikonda (a more adventurous fare, made in loaf-form, from orchid tubers, peanuts, and spices). I have to admit, we wanted to love the latter, but the surprise on the faculty’s faces when we requested this delicacy was made understandable once we bit in to its odd flavors and disconcerting texture. However, the rest of the feast was scrumptious, and we were so grateful for this personal introduction to their local cuisine.
Also dazzling is Lulu, who teaches voice, piano, and Music for Fun, and she is certainly thriving in this role. She creates magic with the little ones, lighting them up with musical games and songs, as well as her infectious enthusiasm and sweet vocals. When I surveyed the teachers about each of their unique superpowers, she spoke about the way in which she is aware that her voice can enchant audiences. The hair standing straight up on my arms when she let me listen to her rehearse I Could Have Danced All Night undoubtedly proved her right: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_u-XTENBsC4
Above, Lulu, (left) is joyfully pictured with another voice and piano teacher Cathrine (right). I was fortunate that my residency gave me time to have several 1-on-1 sessions with each of the faculty. And this privileged intimacy enabled me to learn about many of their successes and challenges.
Cathrine spoke to me about her concerns in reaching a particular special needs student, and asked me to attend one of his lessons. I thought I might be able to offer her some alternative strategies for engaging him. But instead, I was schooled, myself, by a master. Her excellent instincts chose hand drums and rattles as her tools. And from his wheelchair, Jimmy swayed, sang, shook, and squealed with apparent ecstasy as she guided him through their music-making. Mostly non-verbal, Jimmy was chattily engaged by her approach, in ways that I imagine he is by little else. His father clearly agreed, as he sat by Jimmy’s side with a smile full of awe. The whole thing was truly inspirational!
I am far from the only one to recognize the exceptional talents of these women. During Easter Break, while I enjoyed an excursion to Livingstone’s Victoria Falls and Botswana’s Chobe National Park, they were invited to perform at none-other-than Kenneth Kaunda’s 95th birthday party. Kaunda was Zambia’s first president after Independence, in 1964, and served for 27 years.
A lot of my time with the faculty was spent skill sharing. They were eager to expand their offerings at Ngoma Dolce to include more improvisation, songwriting, and other creative activities that support their students’ musical education. And, through my community work with Instruments of Change, I have developed no shortage of these. Their favorite activities seemed to be Human Machines and Singing Monsters. The first asks participants to progressively “build” a machine using rhythmic vocal sounds to accompany mechanical body gestures. I’ve led this with dozens of youth groups, but never before had I seen what was possible with musicians of the Ngoma Dolce teachers’ caliber. And what a machine they made!: https://youtu.be/9r5Mo03nGkA
When we later co-facilitated these games with their students, my imaginative girl group took it to the next level, even naming their “band” the Squeaky Wa Wa’s.
The second one is inspired by a clever video game (youtube.com/watch?v=ew7cJsBNrOQ ) I discovered when my nephew, (8 at the time) fell in love with it. Players create an original musical arrangement by selecting singing monsters, each with their own hilarious tune and beat, that together make a beastly groove: https://youtu.be/8yjEBYQ1hfU
The teachers were sure to share their special skills with me too. Kanyabu, Ngoma Dolce’s piano and dance teacher, can boogie to absolutely any style: Salsa, Jive, Cha Cha Cha. Since we talked a lot about multi-modal learning in our pedagogy workshops, it became obvious that her advantage was definitely keen kinesthetic awareness.
In addition to teaching the older kids to dance to DJ Casper’s Cha Cha Slide: https://youtu.be/tiVqyJMDaGg, Kanyabu got me and all of the faculty up to speed, learning Zambia’s latest dance craze, the Chimwemwe. It has swept the nation the way Gangnam Style swept the globe. There are dozens of versions on YouTube, but this one is the original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ddrcnxrBuc. And, believe me, it’s harder than it looks! While we got lost down the internet rabbit hole, the teachers were also psyched to introduce me to a hysterically funny dance spoof that began in South Africa. It has its roots in the fainting goats meme (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YI4hzzepEcI) but definitely takes it to the next level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Wk8cd_L_K0
The best chance to see the faculty shine came during the mini-masterclass that we held towards the end of our workshops. This gave them a chance to demonstrate their new and existing teaching strategies as they publicly instructed one another in beginner lessons on their primary instruments. Brass and drum teacher, Shimiti truly impressed with a host of multi-modal approaches, while O’Brien tried the trumpet for his first time. Shimiti deliberately played with good and bad technique to impart concepts auditorily. He expertly placed the instrument in O’Brien’s hands with proper posture to help him integrate his new knowledge kinesthetically. And to teach breath support visually, he used a trick that I was especially excited to see him use, as I’ve had it in my arsenal for years. Here, the student is challenged to blow strongly enough to keep a loose paper firm against a wall. It never ceases to amaze me how far the pedagogical traditions of classical music have managed to make their way around the globe.
Pictured below is another brass teacher, Sober, who is far more animated than his name implies (a joke he made himself). With his constant smile and inquisitive nature, he added great value to our engagements with his thought-provoking questions.
Curiosity, humility and empathy are all keys to being a successful human, many leadership experts now claim. And I believe these qualities are best exercised when exploring new cultures. Perhaps the most eclectic cross-cultural exchange of this experience came when the faculty discovered that I was also a yoga instructor, and they expressed a keen interest to learn. This is how it came to be that a Russian Jewish/Italian Catholic dual citizen of the US and Canada came to teach India’s ancient art in the middle of Africa.
During the middle of my stay, I was able to explore a bit more of the region, travelling to Livingstone to marvel at Victoria Falls, and Botswana for a mind-blowing safari. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my time away, I was eager to return to Lusaka for more time with my Ngoma Dolce friends. Our final week was the perfect opportunity to integrate all we had covered together. As the students were still on Spring Break, the music school ran an Ensemble Week, where kids were invited for full days of creative games and chamber music. Performing Amazing Grace on water bottle xylophones was a particular hit. And a color-coded game, that fuses Simon Says and Twister, allowed students to learn the song patterns on “foot piano” before transferring their knowledge to their new instruments.
But the piece de resistance was the original song that students and faculty collaboratively wrote to the tune I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing. This “word squatting” technique is a fabulous way to get people with mixed abilities to write music that they truly feel they authored, while requiring minimal compositional experience. This 70’s Coke commercial jingle is the perfect container for creators to express what they’d “like to” do or see in the world. Recently, I led the same activity with primary school students in BC, who sang about ways to Keep the Oceans Clean. And in All Our Dreams, the Ngoma Dolce community wrote about their aspirations to be queens, to fly, to ride unicorns, to make friends, and to have harmonizing superpowers!
The creativity demonstrated in these activities beautifully echoes the sentiments that the faculty captured in the new mission statement which resulted from our strategic planning conversations.
At Ngoma Dolce Music Academy, our professional faculty inspires a passion and curiosity for music, one student at a time. As the first, full-time music school in Zambia, we have created a safe, supportive environment designed to bring out the best in learners of all ages.
By nurturing the whole student, our instruction encourages excellence, creates a space for self-expression and develops important life skills like time management and discipline, while cultivating joy and a life-long commitment to music-making.
I, too, left Ngoma Dolce feeling more whole and nurtured, thanks to the incredibly warm reception I received from their community. Near the end of our time together, they blessed me with a Zambian name, Liseli, which means “light”. I thought nothing could possibly move me more than that. But, just after the final ensemble week concert, with my cab waiting in the parking lot, the faculty whisked me away from the students, into a private room, where they proceeded to serenade me with a 4-part harmony thank-you song. I was too emotional to capture the moment on video, and simply allowed it to wash over me, as did the tears I continued to shed all the way to the airport. Sometimes, my wildest dreams are not as dazzling as real life.